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Creating Meaning Through Commitment: Rabbi Daniel Levine's Yom Kippur Sermon

Updated: Nov 21, 2022

We start from a birds eye view looking out into the desert - an endlessly vast expanse of sand and outcrops. Animals scurry across the desert floor - they always seem to know exactly where they are going.

We look right and left, forward and backwards. With every new direction comes the expectation of something different - a mirage perhaps - tricking even the most seasoned of desert travelers into thinking they've found an oasis.

We zoom in. Closer and closer we go towards the desert floor until we happen upon the memory of an older man in his own wanderings throughout the desert. He’s clearly been here before. He knows the landscape all too well. He understands he shouldn’t be given false hope by the mirage but at the same time knows that the real hope may not lie in any of the specific desert features itself - rather in the totality of the experience.

We zoom out again - this time seemingly leaving the desert altogether instead entering into a multi thousand year conversation about our desert traveler.

The most important parsha in our Torah - the one in which we finally make it to Sinai - receiving the Torah and ten commandments is not called Parsha Sinai nor Parsha Eseret Hadibort. It isn’t called Parsha HaTorah or any other similar title seemingly befitting such a momentous portion.

Rather, what is forever known as the central portion of the Torah, is named after our enigmatic desert traveler. A man named Yitro about whom very little is said in the text of the Torah.

But who really was this man who would eventually become the father in law of Moses and join the Israelites as they traveled throughout the desert effectively becoming the first convert in our history? A man so seemingly important as to have an entire Parsha - the Parsha with the receival of the Torah and subsequent ten commandments - named after him? Every year we have a Parshat Yitro.

A shepherd by trade, Yitro or Jethro had been a nomad for the early years of his life traveling throughout the arid and unforgiving landscape of the ancient middle east. Confronting sandstorms, famine, and the ubiquity of droughts that we know all too well from the pages of the Bible - Yitro had seen it all before eventually settling in Midian to raise seven daughters.

A flashback!

We first see Yitro as a young boy born with a dream to become a shepard.

In those days - at the dawn of the iron age - to be a shepherd was an implicit rebellion against the normal way of life.

“Are you still running around in the hilltops after all those sheep?” Yitro could still remember the jeering and bullying of his young classmates when he dared to express his longings for the hills. “Why don’t you just become a farmer like everyone else?” The echoes of teachers' concerns rang in his mind.

To be a shepard was to be a seeker. It was to want more out of life than the mundanities of a society obsessed with material growth. It was to value ancient wisdom and tradition in a quickly changing and evolving world. It was a philosophical disposition that highlighted the fact that the shepherd was open to discovery of deep truths and foundational secrets wherever they may lead him.

But as a young Yitro would soon realize: truth, happiness, and most importantly meaning isn’t always easily found.

It’s a funny thing when it comes to meaning. It’s something that we all crave, something that we all long for as we go about the journey of our lives. It’s often the first and last standard as we evaluate our relationships to the people, the things, the activities, and the communities around us.

“Is it meaningful?” “Is this meaningful?” “Will this be meaningful?”

We find ourselves asking in the internal conversation in our mind. And with very little patience when the answer is anything other than a resounding yes. How quick we are to discard anything - be it a person, place, or thing that doesn’t bring instant gratification.

The Rabbis in the Midrash tells us that by the time we meet Yitro in the early pages of the book of Exodus he had spent years on his own search. Born into a polytheistic society Yitro had spent years becoming an expert of the diverse religious traditions of the world around him. He worshiped idol after idol - religious creed after creed - but the “aha” moment never came - he never felt at home

Other Rabbinic legends place Yitro as an early advisor to pharoah. He had slowly climbed the upper echelons of political power working overtime after his graduate studies at University of Moab eventually making it to the inner boardrooms of the Egyptian elite.

He was in the room - the Rabbis tell us - when Pharaoh was considering the fateful decision to throw the Hebrew boys into the nile. But Yitro was so disgusted by the policy, that he hung up his political hat and knew that pharoah’s egypt wasn’t a home either.

We often search for meaning as if it is an object we’ve lost or is simply hiding in some far off, elusive place. We search and search. Where can it be?!

Perhaps we will find meaning in the next hobby we pursue. That next job. Our next relationship. The next hilltop in the horizon is always deceivingly looking higher than our own vantage point. Surely I’ll find meaning there…

After he fled Egypt Yitro was back wandering the seemingly infinite landscape of the rugged desert.

What happens when finding meaning is so seemingly elusive that we become even more desperate in our search? When we experience dead-end after dead-end resulting in our patience growing even thinner?

A few years ago at a Harvard law graduation speech - one of the graduates - Pete Davis captivated the audience when he spoke out against the idea of keeping our options open. Speaking to a room of people who quite literally had the ability to pursue a near infinite number of option, Davis began his counter intuitive message:

We’re walking down a long hallway with endless doors branching off, Davis describes, and we’re afraid to enter any door given that it will inherently close off a countless number of others - so instead we spend our lives stuck in the hallway. What Davis calls the infinite browsing mode - where we are always on the search for something better.

Yitro too browsed and browsed through the endless landscape of the desert. Another religious temple, another job, another hilltop - but nothing quenched his thirst. There must be more to all of this, Yitro thought.

We all know the story of the Exodus from Egypt and how God took us out with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm but how many of us know that at the same time Yitro was in the middle of his own memorable journey. He walked and walked until eventually finding his way up a harsh crag surrounded by rocky outcrops. And then he saw something - a community - that had a different aura to them.

Gazing from the mountaintop he saw the ancient Israelites at the foot of Sinai committing to a way of life and covenant that would still be talked about millennia later.

But what was different about these people? He just couldn’t put his finger on it and moreover at this point Yitro was skeptical. He had seen too many mirages.

Their rituals seemed just as random as their ancient contemporaries. Sure, some of the ideas seemed revolutionary and ethically novel - but it was still dressed in the ancient dogmas that he had grown to have less and less patience for.

The anecdote to the infinite browsing mode - Davis concluded at his Harvard commencement speech - is commitment. We are stuck in a culture that provides infinite options tricking us into thinking that there is something better, something deeper, something that will make us happier, something more meaningful down the road. So we keep swiping through options.

We walk through the hallway of life looking into all of the rooms right and left - feeling bad for the poor and sorry people pigeonholed into any specific room while a myriad of un-explored options potentially awaits them. Don’t they know - all those people in those rooms - that there are a myriad of unexplored options waiting for them right on the outside?

Yet it is us that is endlessly stuck in the hallway either afraid of - or feeling that we’re too wise or too knowledgeable - to walk into any of the rooms. So we continue further and further down the hallway.

As Yitro began to spend time amongst the ancient Israelites he noticed something that began to move him. It wasn’t any of the specific beliefs nor the particular rituals. There wasn’t one prayer that inspired an “aha moment” - and it certainly wasn’t any of the Rabbi’s sermons that went on and on about seemingly random people from the past.

But Yitro couldn’t help but notice that when it came to this new tradition at the foot of Sinai the whole emerged to be greater than the sum of its parts. He began to see an age old secret that has fostered the Jewish community for thousands of years. That meaning isn’t to be found in an “end” but rather in the “means”. That value and meaning isn’t something we happen upon but rather something we create through the process of commitment.

As scary as it is to commit, having no commitments is scarier. Yom kippur is an invitation to take notice and stock as to how we live our lives. To part with the pervasive myth that meaning is something that we will one day arrive at or discover. That meaning is on another hilltop we have just yet to reach. No, we create and unearth meaning through our commitments and obligations to something beyond ourselves.

There is a story about Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel where one of his students was sitting in the back during davening - services - staring blankly at his Siddur. An hour of services went by and the student kept glancing down and began to mutter some prayers - then solemnly stopped.

“Is everything ok?” Heshcel asked lovingly at the end of davening.

“I didn’t have it in me to pray today” the student replied, “the spirit didn’t move me”

“My son” Hesechel concluded, “sometimes the spirit moves you but more often it is you that must move the spirit”

I like to think of Yitro - newly arriving into the Israelite camp with a protective aura of skepticism around him. He hears the ten commandment, the myriad of ritualistic Mitzvot, the laws of interpersonal relations and he still isn’t convinced.

Perhaps he was about to leave the camp - his bags packed and slung over his shoulder - ready to continue on the journey to find another temporary stop throughout the infinite landscape - but suddenly he heard something. A phrase that highlighted not a conclusion but a process.

“Kedoshim Tihiyu” - You shall be holy!

One of the most foundational imperatives of our tradition.

“Kedoshim Tihiyu” - You shall be holy!

Not, you are already holy but you can become holy. Holiness is not an act of being but an act of becoming! Holiness and meaning is something that can be acquired if you put in the time if you are committed. That meaning isn’t something that is arrived at or discovered - rather it is something worked toward.

All of the Jewish holidays have their symbolism. Rosh Hashanah the Shofar, Sukkot the Lulav and Etrog, Passover the Matzah - we can go on!

It is only Yom Kippur that comes to us symbol-less. We have no specific ritual tool to aid us in our journey - no festive foods to evoke the nostalgia of the day. We have no religious crutch with which to lean on. No possibility of mistaking the ritual for the real work of personal introspection.

No, On Yom Kippur the only symbol of the day is ourselves. It is a screaming reminder that we are standing at the precipice of an infinite landscape with only our ability to create holiness through our commitments. Our commitments to loved ones. Commitments to ideas. And commitment to a sacred tradition passed down through centuries and across oceans.

On Yom Kippur - on this awesome day that the Torah calls Shabbat Shabbaton - The Shabbat of Shabbats - the ultimate time of rest and reflection. In this wonderful moment that the Talmud refers to as the happiest day of the year. On this auspicious date that Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel refers to as the grand cathedral of Jewish time - we truly have the chance to reimagine our commitments, our obligations, and where and how we want to create holiness in our world.

Gmar Chitmah Tova

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